Guest Post by Sgt. Gary Apperson (ret)
Anchorage Police Dept., MSCJ
Currently an adjunct professor for the University of Wisconsin-Platteville teaching undergraduate criminal justice and research writing courses, online distance education program.
I am retired from a 25 year police career in a large police department of 400 sworn officers and 100 non-sworn. After my retirement, I earned a Master of Science degree in criminal justice and I currently teach undergraduate criminal justice classes for a state university in the Midwest. I would take this moment to highly recommend getting your 4 year degree – 1) for prospective officer candidates, a degree opens doors for jobs/careers, 2) for working officers, a degree makes police work easier and more effective in your efforts, promotions, and because you know so much more, and 3) for senior officers, a degree can open more doors to great retirement jobs.
During my active duty years, I worked in all phases of police work, I was a police supervisor for 20 of those years, I taught rookies in the police academy, and have earned and learned some things I would be honored to share with you. Consider this a Sgt.’s briefing – I have actually shared many of these comments with working police officers, and have later modified it for my criminal justice college students. Here is actual guidance I provide to my criminal justice students as I wind down each semester:
- Logically, after obtaining your degrees, you are likely to work in the criminal justice or related field. As a fan of you and your higher education quest, I would like to pass on some important nuggets I have learned and earned during my journey.
- Ethics, integrity, and attitude are your most valuable assets; never compromise them in your personal and professional lives. I could write a book on how many police careers were forever ruined - all based on lapses in these core values. Ethics are doing the right thing, even when no one is watching, your integrity cannot be taken from you - you can only give it away, and your attitude is what others see of you and therefore judge you.
- Living in the age of technology would prompt my advice you should plan on everything you do and say as being recorded - so never do or say anything that you would not want everyone to know. I used to give this advice when teaching in the police academy - yet despite this sound advice, one young officer at a homicide scene was picked up on another officer's tape recorder while recording a statement as saying, "If my wife kept our house this messy, I would kill her too." You can imagine that the judge, jury, prosecutors, defense attorneys, courtroom audience, and media all heard the tape in court and the officer had to take the stand to explain exactly what he meant in this official record - a memorable day, to say the least.
- Don't take what happens on the job personally, but bring your awesome personality to the job. There will be plenty that does not go your way - make your best effort to make it come out as best you can and move on. The trick here is to determine (and accept) what you can control and what you cannot - but do your best in both instances.
- Keep your personal life exemplary - which will in turn, help you in your professional life. I have witnessed many sullied personal lives spill over into professional lives and ruin careers - not to mention ruined personal lives.
- Value your non-workplace friends. I have found that in police work, it is easy to find yourself with only police friends. Make sure you maintain friends beyond your job/career. Police friends are great - but so are non-police friends, the idea is not to limit other aspects of your world.
- Take a college-level personal financial planning course. You need the skills to obtain and retain your wealth during your active working years and beyond into retirement. I cannot tell you how many cops I worked with that retired only to have to start new careers because they did not have the skills to plan to obtain and retain their wealth. I would make the bold statement that personal financial planning was the most important course I have ever taken. It probably will be for you, too.
- Knowledge and knowing the material is good, but having the skills to write about the material in scholarly format is most likely how you will be known. To this end, my advice is to write better than you have to - writing well will take you places beyond what you have imagined. In my career, writing well put/kept bad guys in jail, saved/ended careers, provided training to others, put forth official statements to the public, created heartfelt eulogies for fallen comrades, wrote official department policies, secured grants and budgetary funds, provided guidance to lawmakers, and a zillion police reports to name but a few things accomplished with writing. Never pass up opportunities to pick up more writing skills.
- The Criminal Justice system is a lifelong learning process. Consider this course as a good starting point to learn more.
- Be humble in your profession, and don't take yourself too seriously. I think we have all seen authority figures who obviously take themselves too seriously - please do not be one of them. As an authority figure or other criminal justice practitioner, consider yourself no better or no worse than anyone else. Instead, take pride in your work, be non-judgmental, and be considerate of others - there is no telling what kind of day they have had leading up to their contact with you. I have actually had ex-prisoners contact me for new future problems and tell me that they sought me out because even though I had arrested them, they appreciated that I treated them with dignity and respect - try to be that kind of authority figure. It costs virtually nothing to show others respect, but the cost can be huge if you do not.
- Not trying to sound like Mr. Rogers here, but it would be certainly be a good idea if you would do something nice for those in your world that have shown you support in your higher education quest. It goes without saying that time spent on studies translates into time away from people important to you.